Volcano Choir is a band, and it would like you to know this.
Its composition is derived of people who’ve made their names and livings in other projects, and its singer happens to be a man who guests on Kanye records, has a few Grammys sitting at home, and possess the voice that launched a million Pandora stations, but try not to let that distract you. If there’s a message in those blurry press stills or the fact that none of the venue websites promoting the act’s current tour bear the words “featuring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon,” it’s that Volcano Choir is just a collection of six dudes making music. One for all, all for one, and all that shit. Kindly check your baggage at the door.
This wasn’t always the case. Or, rather, Volcano Choir didn’t always have the strongest argument to back it up. When Volcano Choir released its debut, Unmap, four years ago, the group didn’t seem more than an extracurricular activity. The album was made piecemeal, digital files passed back and forth between members over the course of a few years, and when it came out, the band didn’t bother to perform its songs live. The members just went about their lives, making music in their mainstay gigs like Collections of Colonies of Bees, All Tiny Creatures, and, yes, Bon Iver.
According to guitarist Chris Rosenau, that all changed with a trip to Japan in late 2010. Three years later, Volcano Choir has released Repave, an album that marks a stunning transformation in scope and approach. Gone are twinkling and meandering soundscapes of Unmap, replaced with the peaks and valleys and more peaks of unabashedly grand rock music. Repave is a physical record, one that sounds like it was recorded by a group of guys in one room. A band.
BYT spoke with Rosenau late last month, finding him in Milwaukee, where Volcano Choir had gathered to practice before its first U.S. tour. All of the group’s members live in the city or nearby Madison, but getting in the same room with Vernon, who’s four hours northwest in Eau Claire, takes greater planning. “We’re ironing out some last minute stuff,” he said. “We’re trying our goddamn hardest to put together something real special for everyone. I think it’s going to work out.”
We realized the potential for the band after Unmap was done. As far as I’m concerned, Unmap is a fully realized record – I still believe that, and I definitely thought it then. But after that record, we had it in the back of our mind that there was somewhere else that we could take this.
The band kind of sat dormant for a while, and then one of our good friends in Japan – someone who had brought our other bands over there in the past – approached us with an offer for a Japanese tour, which was way too fun to turn down, so we, of course, accepted. Then we realized that no one had any freaking idea how to play any of these songs live. We had never done it before. That was the second stage.
During and after that Japanese tour, it really was clear that something else was going to happen. What that something else was going to be was anyone’s guess. We had purposefully designed those shows to try to translate Unmap into a live setting. A lot of the songs got louder and a lot more energetic. We were all in that space every night, and we would have conversations about making a more bombastic, live-ish full record. That’s the DNA of all these musical projects that we all have going on anyway, so it was a natural kind of thing.
We made the decision in Japan that we were definitely a band and something was going to happen. No one knew what it was going to be or how we were going to get there, but I started writing the first song for Repave a week or two after we got back. That ended up being “Almanac” on the new record.
Given the shared DNA of those projects, are there qualities of Volcano Choir’s music that end up being unique?
Volcano Choir isn’t just a combination of all our other bands. The equation doesn’t look like “all of these bands plus these other bands equals Volcano Choir.” Volcano Choir is two things: It’s the best parts of all of our separate projects – which is probably kind of obvious listening to it – but there are also aspects that we can’t bring into those other bands. That’s what comes out in Volcano Choir. What pushes Volcano Choir to the next level is that we all feel completely free to bring any idea into this environment.
Collections of Colonies of Bees and All Tiny Creatures and John Mueller’s projects haven’t necessarily locked themselves into things, but we’re usually working on one specific idea within a timeframe of a couple of years. With Volcano Choir, it’s the opposite. It’s a total playground. Everyone is free to explore any idea that they want – that’s how it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. There’s total trust and freedom to explore anything, to express anything, because you’re in this super close network of friends that you trust to accept your idea and make it better.
This is the one reason that Repave is so different from Unmap. The DNA for the two records is very similar, but the songwriting process for Repave was unique. All of these songs started with a singular idea – some from me, some from [keyboardist] Tom [Wincek] – but “composition” isn’t exactly how we approached those first ideas. We purposefully approached them as sketches with a lot of built-in ambiguity, in both structure and key. We like to write like that, especially with this group of people, because everyone trusts each other so much. It’s fun to not prescribe something. It’s more fun to be super ambiguous and see where the song takes itself.
What ended up happening with Repave is that, over a lot of years, these initial ideas were constructed bit-by-bit by subgroups of us. That’s another difference from the first record: We were getting together more often – either all of us, or a subgroup of us – and just writing this stuff, and having a lot of fun, and having no prescribed ideas or timelines. What we had was this total freedom of movement. We kept adding and subtracting, and redoing them, and letting things sit for a year, and then coming back to them, and then building them up and tearing them down again. That was the songwriting process for this record: It was total construction and deconstruction in a two-and-a-half year loop. I think you can hear that in the record – I can hear it. It’s a good blast-the-shit-out-of-your-speakers-in-the-car record, but it’s also a great headphones record. There’s a lot of stuff going on in those songs.
You started working on Repave at the end of 2010, and then over the course of 2011, Justin’s main gig, Bon Iver, took off to a massive degree. When you were making the record, were you cognizant of the fact that that it was going to be greeted with a heightened level of interest and scrutiny because of that?
The short answer is no, and in all honesty, I really wanted to be able to say that at the end of this process. I was kind terrified of it happening while we were writing this, but I think that we avoided thinking about that whole thing with the way that we approached the music. We weren’t really writing songs – we working on these super specific parts of what were becoming compositions and songs. Because of our myopic focus in all of these separate songwriting sessions, we never took a step back and thought about this as a record until sometime early last year. Justin was having this insane success, and we were having an amazing time watching him navigate that. We were super proud of him, but when it came down to making Repave, it didn’t enter into the equation.
By the time that we got out of this tight space with these songs, they were so interesting to us – because of all the effort that had been put in – that we thought, “Well, shit, we’re not going to change anything at this point. This is great.” At the end of the day, that’s what Volcano Choir is all about for us. It’s not about having about having a single or selling records or any of that stuff. A lot of bands probably say that, but I can say that for this band, it’s totally true. We’ve turned down so many things that didn’t fit within the idea of the band. I’m kind of shocked that we didn’t get bogged down in all of that, but I’m super happy that it didn’t happen.
What sort of opportunities did you walk away from?
Things like shows, tours, festivals, working with certain directors for videos. There’s been stuff that has come our way that may have been great, but we’re really trying to focus on doing very focused things that we think are important and fun.
You mention letting the music take its own path, but listening to Repave, there seems to be a greater incorporation of more traditional structures – things as simple as clearly defined verses and choruses. Is that something you had in mind at the outset or chiseled in later when Justin added his vocals?
The reason that you’re hearing it on Repave and not Unmap is literally because of how the two projects were approached and the evolution of the band between those points in time. Unmap couldn’t have much of that because there was no band, you know what I mean? It was all experimentation. Most of the stuff on Unmap that gets into more traditional song structures happened later on in the writing process, as we began to realize the potential of what we could maybe do. A lot of that got more fleshed out for Repave because that’s how a lot of us write anyway. We thought, “Hey, this is a rock band. Let’s approach this with the same tool box that we approach our other rock bands.”
The songs were fleshed out musically before Justin recorded his vocals. Justin had input during the whole process, but he trusts us as much as we trust him. He just sat back and let it happen. He would give us input and some great ideas where he saw fit, but he mostly just kept getting the files and growing more excited about where everything was going.
What’s the significance of the title, Repave?
Everything with Volcano Choir aesthetically – whether it’s titles or words or art – has to really resonate with everyone. We didn’t have a title for this record until halfway through the vocals being done. “Repave” is a word from the song “Alaskans” on the record. It was one of those weird things, like a lot that happens with us, where at some point one person– it was either me or Justin – was like, “We should just call this record Repave.” That’s how we feel about this record: We made a path for ourselves and started walking down that path with Unmap, and for this record we’re solidifying it. That idea and the resonance of that word came from that lyrics, but it ended being something that applies to the band so much more.